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Idiot's Array
Part 1

A Tale by Bulldog and Lock
Contributions from: Battledog, and Jalb_k

CRS Vigilant SSD
POV: Bulldog

1st Lieutenant Andy “Bulldog” Clark was drunk, and far beyond the point of no return. He’d nearly fallen off the stool he’d occupied for the better part of two hours in the SSD, and used the last of his strength and coordination to use the bar surface to guide himself to a corner booth. He continued to order drinks, sinking deeper into the stiff padding of the booth couch with each round in an attempt to completely disappear.

Various crewmembers had come and gone after a drink or two throughout the night. A few nodded in his direction, but none approached or ventured to make small talk. Even the beings that came in solo had given him a wide berth and respected his solitude. The last person to be in the ship’s bar had left 20 minutes ago, leaving the inebriated pilot and the droid bartender as the sole occupants of the establishment.

He was relapsing, falling back into the old drinking habit with reckless abandon. Knowing he was relapsing led to more self-loathing and more disappointment in himself- which caused him to order more and more drinks to obliviate his mind. He pounded the last finger of his double of bourbon with haste and held his fist to his chest as the burn radiated throughout his upper torso. The feeling passed after a moment, and then the pleasant numbness returned. He waved at Iggy to order another drink, then ran his fingers through his thinning hair. It was numb, which was always the point in the past that he knew he wasn’t walking out under his own power. He leaned back heavily in his booth, and his head missed the padding and smacked the wall with a bone-shaking crack. Immediately his vision blurred worse than it was already.

“You’re cut off, LT,” Iggy droned from the bar without turning an optical sensor in his direction. “Don’t you have a duty shift coming up that you have to sleep for?”

“Order another,” a familiar voice said softly. “Don’t take any guff from that kriffing droid,” the voice continued with a hearty chuckle.

Bulldog’s heart seized with shock and his drooping, bloodshot eyes shot wide open. His adrenaline spiked. He whipped his head around quickly, looking for the source of the voice: his recently deceased tug-pilot friend named Zimm. The sudden movement made him lose his already tenuous grip on balance, and he laid completely down and watched the ceiling spin wildly. His heart was still beating a mile a minute, but there was no matching heavy breathing associated with heightened cardiovascular activity.

Zimm’s blurry face appeared above him with a smirk. “If you’re going to do it, why not go the full nine?”

“Zimm?”

Zimm’s eyebrow arched as his eyes fell on the squadron patch on Bulldog’s shoulder. “You’re a Rogue now, eh? I knew you had it in you, bud.”

Bulldog reached up toward the smiling face of his definitely dead friend. As his hand reached the relative location of his friend’s ghostly visage, it rippled away as if he was a reflection in a puddle of water that just had a rock tossed in to disturb the placid surface. When the rippling was finished, Zimm was gone.

“You’re still cut off, so put that arm down,” Iggy replied with a simulated electronic sigh. “And I suggest you head back to your bunk before I slap you across the face with a wet trout.”

Bulldog didn’t hear him. He’d already passed out and was snoring loudly.

*********************************************************************************************************

CRS Vigilant Sim Room
POV: Lock

“Get it together, Black Squad!” Major Tony “Thanatos” Marco’s voice growled over the comm.

Captain Roy “Lock” Callahan furrowed his brow as he slammed his stick forward to pitch his simulated X-Wing into a steep dive. The pneumatic pumps and gimbals simulated the G-forces of the maneuver slightly, but it was still noticeably different than actual combat maneuvers to veteran pilots that had experienced the real deal. Still though, it paid to treat it as real and serious as he could, even if he was completely burnt out and mentally drifting every couple of minutes.

“I’ve got one tight on me,” Bulldog said with a chuckle. “This has to be Rogue Lead! Let’s see if you can still keep up, old man.”

“Take it seriously, Twelve!” Thanatos admonished. “Slip through the wreckage and bring your tail to sector X-ray-2. I’ll go set up for an ambush on the other side of that slab of durasteel.”

“Stang! I’ve never seen that before! I didn’t know this ship could do that...”

“Just stick to the plan, Twelve!”

“Rog-” Bulldog started, but his comms cut out, indicating that he had been digitally vaped.

Lock saw the simulated explosion far away through the scattered debris field and saw what looked like an X-Wing fly through the digital conflagration. “Twelve’s down,” he reported dispassionately.

“We’re getting sloppy,” Thanatos growled in frustration. “Better get serious real quick if we want to pull this one out, Nine.”

Lock frowned. He wanted to get himself psyched to compete with the remaining Rogues in this intra-squad tilt, but he just couldn’t find the will to pull that competitive edge out from wherever it was hiding deep within himself.

“Oh stang!” Thanatos cursed. “The other two jumped on me while I was looking for Lead. Where are you, Nine?!”

“I was looking for those guys on the other end of the debris field,” Lock replied dully.

“Blast it, Nine! Where’s your head-”

Lock sighed. Somewhere off to his port side, Thanatos’ X-Wing had just been destroyed. He knew he should be angry, that he should be psyched, and ultimately that the deep well of rage within him should sprout forth and make himself death incarnate in the cockpit.

However, he still felt… nothing.

His astromech Seekay chirped and pinged three new sensor signatures on his readout. It appeared the entire team was coming for him head on, spread out enough to nullify any chance he had of taking them all out quickly.

“Scrog it. Let’s go H2H on this one,” Lock murmured as he kicked his rudder down and slammed his throttle down. Seekay warbled a warning and a series of disapproving tones. “Can it, droid,” he replied with a sneer. “This isn’t real. I’ll show them something they’ve never seen before.”

The three enemy X-Wings were getting closer, boost-gasping their ships to reach him faster. Clearly they weren’t lacking confidence in their chances of the upcoming exchange.

Lock grinned as a silly idea flitted through his mind, and was surprised at the genuine feeling of joy that had suddenly erupted within his chest. Warmth radiated throughout his limbs, and a little bit of his recent depression-fueled darkness slipped away. “Ok, boys, let’s see how you react to something new…”

The Corellian threw his X-Wing into a randomized corkscrew as he neared his opponents. He needed to get in close to try the wild maneuver he’d mentally rehearsed a few times in the last few seconds, and being a straight-flying sitting duck would end this trip real quick.

The three X-Wings kept to their own firing lanes, true to their Rogue skills and training. It made the approach much more difficult for Lock to pull off. But true to his own experience and skill, he managed to avoid falling into the loose trap the Rogues were attempting to set. “In five seconds, shunt all engine power into the port engines, Seekay.”

The astromech droid tootled what seemed to be a shocked interrogative, quickly followed by a loud series of droid-curses as the ride got rougher. Still, the droid’s interior clock ticked down the seconds as it was ordered to do. After five seconds, the starboard engine power was cut completely.

Lock was slammed into the left side of his cockpit as the right half of his ship lost propulsion. It sent him into a tight spin, but before he lost all forward momentum, he jammed down the boost toggle and started a drift. The resulting motion of the ship was a slewing turn that rotated on all axes wildly. He mashed down the trigger on his stick and started sending lasers in all directions.

While it looked impressive and beautiful from a distance, in terms of combat effectiveness, it scored minimal hits. Seekay wailed as three streams of lasers converged upon his ship and took him down. His screen went black, and the shuddering of the sim pod ceased. The hinges hissed as the door opened behind his seat. He ran his hands through his hair and let loose one last chuckle as he rose and exited the pod.

“There he is!” 1st Lt. Josh “Hellcat” Kinney shouted with a laugh.

“What do you call that little maneuver?” 1st LT Nick “Jasted” Finelli asked as he ambled over, an amused look on his face.

A wry smile crossed Lock’s lips. “I, uh, I’m not sure?”

Lt. Col Chris “Jalb_k” Reynolds patted him on the back. “Well, back in the day there was a glitch that popped up during a sim exercise that locked some people into a rapid, flat, spin. The only way to get the ship out of it was to shoot it down or ram it.”

“I remember that glitch,” Jasted said as he rolled his neck and shoulders. “Wasn’t it from an exercise Jedi had programmed?”

“Whirly Dirly?” Bulldog mused as he rubbed his temples. Clearly he was dealing with a nearly debilitating hangover from his previous night’s visit to the SSD.

“The ‘Spindizzy’ is what we called it,” Thanatos said bitterly as he exited the room.

“The Spindizzy!” Jalb, Jasted, and Hellcat chorused, with a healthy fit of laughter. They all sobered at the same time with wistful looks on their faces. Jalb snapped out of the reverie first and put his hand back on Lock’s shoulder. “Well, I’d say drinks are on Spindizzy and the rest of his team for this hop.”

********************************************************************************************************

Two Days Later

CRS Vigilant Medical Offices
POV: Bulldog

“Battle Fatigue,” Dr. Ithaas Zeq’aal said succinctly without looking up from her datapad.

“Battle fatigue?” Bulldog replied, confused. “I’m not tired though. Now, anyway. I know I fell asleep in the cockpit at the very end of my last engagement, and again in the SSD a few days ago- but I’m not tired now.”

Dr. Zeq’aal laughed politely. “You misunderstand. This has nothing to do with energy. It is the… delicate term we use for somebody that’s just been through a long series of high-stakes situations and their brains just need a break to recalibrate.”

Bulldog rubbed his chin in thought. When it was explained that way, he was exhausted. The wing had had very little downtime since before Endor. Series of high-stakes situations was a mild way to put it as far as he was concerned. “So, am I the only one that has it?”

Zeq’aal looked up from her datapad with a kind smile. “I cannot share any information with you regarding other patients that may or may not be having similar issues. What I can tell you is that this is a very common issue amongst military personnel.”

“Is it related to issues I was having when we first started therapy?”

Zeq’aal nodded. “Yes, it is very related.”

Bulldog nodded. The thought of his first therapy sessions brought back the blurry memory of his friend Zimm and his apparent visitation in the SSD two nights past. He mentally bandied about the idea of sharing that occurrence with the doctor, but decided against it to avoid any unwanted loss in flight status. “So, what is the treatment? A medication of some kind?”

“No. You just need a break. Time away from the line, as they used to say.”

Bulldog snorted as his shoulders sagged. “Well, fat chance that’ll happen, Doc. They’ve had us in the thick of it for the better part of the month. I can’t imagine they’re going to take their hand off the throttle now, even with the Vigilant in need of some more permanent repairs after our last C-F.”

“C… F?” The Bothan asked.

Bulldog grinned sheepishly. “Sorry ma’am, pilot-speak. Cluster… Fu-”

“Ok ok I get it,” Zeq’aal said as she held up her hand and arched her eyebrow. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that prediction, Lieutenant.”

Bulldog perked up. “You know something I don’t, Doc?”

Zeq’aal’s sly smile grew. “Let’s just say I see a lot of people on the Vigilant, and some of them are higher ranked than you.”

************************************************************************************************************

CRS Vigilant Pilot Bunk
POV: Lock

Leaning against the frame of the doorway that led into his room, Lock watched as the Wing’s quartermaster led a small detachment of crewmen into the quarters of recently deceased pilots, packing their belongings however they could and mounting them onto the grav-carts awaiting outside each recently disoccupied room. Today it was apparently Rogue Squadron’s turn.

The first room they cleared had belonged to Nexu and Highball, two of the Cadets that Rogue had picked up at M-Base. Nexu had actually died a few days before Highball, so it was strange seeing them clear out his things almost a week and a half after his death. Usually, pilots' things were left as they were for a few days after they died so that their close friends could claim some memento. Then five more pilots had died and thrown the process out of sync.

Five more had died. For Lock, it had been a strange experience. He’d left on a mission with Thanatos and when he returned half the Squadron had been killed. Sure, it wasn’t unheard of, but two weeks ago Rogue Squadron, supposedly the best pilots in the New Republic, had been at full strength. Now they were clearing out half their kriffin’ bunks. An icy coldness began to take root in the white haired pilot, coolly watching the process continue.

“Hey, Lock,” said a female voice behind him. He turned to look at the familiar face of Gremlin. The Zeltronian Captain smiled, “Did you hear?”

“About Shore Leave?” he asked. “Yeah.”

Gremlin stopped next to her former squad leader and for a moment silently watched as they finished packing Nexu and Highball’s things and sealed the room before moving on to Rogues Three and Seven. Sparks and Sleepy--both pilots called up from Skull that had not only great skill but lived up to their callsigns. Sparks had been a little harder to get along with, but everyone had liked Sleepy--until he started snoring. More than once Lock had heard Sparks yelling at Sleepy to stop snoring through the bulkhead walls that separated his and their room.

“Do you have any plans?” she asked, turning her attention away from what was going on.

Lock shook his head. “Nope.”

“How about we go do something?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Anything! We finally get to have a break!”

Lock sighed. He needed a break. Since Endor it had felt like he was going from one life or death situation to another. It was the life of a combat pilot, it’s what he signed up for, so he had no reason to really complain… except… It’s what he’d been doing for years before Endor as well. For the first time in his career, he was beginning to feel fatigued, worn down by the sea of bodies he’d left behind, both of allies and enemies alike.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?” Gremlin asked.

“Yeah, we finally get to have a break. Let’s do something. Anything. You pick. Just let me know and I’ll be there.”

************************************************************************************************************

ISD Conviction Conference Room
POV: Commodore Tol Barand

Commodore Tol Barand was sitting in a spartan conference room aboard his flagship, the Imperial Star Destroyer Conviction. Utilizing his dwindling access to the holonet for this meeting was a calculated show of power for his subordinates. His ship and the taskforce he had sent after a depleted Vigilant Taskforce had been bloodied, and the captain of the Interdictor he’d had on loan had indeed spread the tale of their failure far and wide. It is time to show them that a setback does not mean failure.

“As I was saying, ladies and gentlemen, the Separatists will be attempting to probe our sphere of influence for an entrypoint. They are looking for our soft underbelly where they can thrust their spear and impale us,” Barand said as he touched his fingertips to each other in front of his mouth in a calculated pensive look. “What I want is an idea where we think that soft target may be. The floor is yours.”

The holographic officers sat stock still for a long time. Enough time had passed that Barand wondered if his gambit of using the holonet had backfired and the connection had collapsed. He shifted slightly in his seat to lean forward, no doubt appearing larger in their views back at their outposts.

Finally, one of his outpost leaders spoke up. “Commodore Barand, there is no doubt that many of us are afraid that this may be some sort of test to see who blinks first, and you’ll replace the first person to admit weakness,” the officer stated matter-of-factly. He paused, clearly thinking of his phrasing before continuing. “I, however, harbor no worries of being replaced. I am confident in my abilities to defend my sector. However, the amount of force likely to be levied at any one point is more than likely going to be so overwhelming that even the genius of the lost Grand Admiral Thrawn would not be able to stop the Rebels. If you see fit to replace me for seeing sense, I would step down knowing that no other officer could do a better job than I.”

Barand nodded thoughtfully. “I see, Commander Videl,” he said with a genuine smile. “I appreciate your candor, as always. I think it prudent if-”

“If I may speak, sir?” A junior officer interrupted.

Barand looked at the new officer, carefully keeping his gaze locked on the face of the speaker while utilizing his peripheral vision to read the name underneath the face. “Yes, Lieutenant Commander Baleon?”

The officer was clearly surprised, pleasantly so, that Barand apparently knew his name. His posture improved ever so slightly. “I believe that my installation would be the likely point the enemy would use to drive into our space in the Felicrest Sector.”

Barand nodded thoughtfully, as if pondering the point. I already selected your base as the likely target, but it’s still good to see which officers are self-aware enough to recognize the bigger picture. “I see. Please elaborate.”

Baleon continued. “I believe my sector is out of the way enough that there are no easy hyperlanes from our other stronger holdings with a meaningful amount of reinforcements to spare, and the asteroid belt of the system is just dense enough to hide approaching ships while still being relatively easy to traverse without overly large threat to an attacking fleet. Any attacking fleet could defeat our forces and form up with plenty of time to defeat any reinforcements while also using our location as a hub to make multiple strikes into deeper targets within the overall command sector.”

Another officer scoffed loudly. “Nobody in their right mind would waste their time on a podunk little outpost like yours at Skoth with the aim of coming after us. It would serve no other purpose than to alert the rest of us to the attack.”

Barand whipped his head around to glower at the interrupting speaker. “Captain Del, you would do well to check your thinking on the matter,” he said calmly but coolly. “I happen to concur with Lieutenant Commander Baleon’s assessment that his sector is the likely point the Separatists would probe for the very reasons he’s listed. You would do well to dispel the habit of dismissing things out of hand because you personally wouldn’t do them.”

Del bristled at the admonishment. “Is that how you turned a sure victory into a stunning defeat?”

The air was sucked out of the room, and all of the other officers on the holonet meeting visibly recoiled at the audacity of the claim. Nobody moved, waiting to see which man would blink first.

Barand’s nostrils flared slightly. “Captain Del, the plan put forth was agreed upon by all of the officers in this meeting, yourself included. Your indictment of the situation unwittingly puts your own judgement into question along with the rest of the esteemed officers in this meeting. Perhaps you should also dispel the habit of trying to save face when you’ve been corrected, or else I’ll be forced to find a more measured officer to put in your place.”

“Is that a threat, Commodore Barand?”

Barand shook his head negative. “No, sir, but it IS a promise. You will do your best to correct your shortcomings quickly before you end up losing any of my forces due to your hot nature and rash judgement.”

“Last I checked, YOU lost forces during the last engagement!” Del exploded.

Barand smiled coldly. “You are indeed correct, Captain. The first phase of the plan to strip the Vigilant of the majority of her forces worked completely. Three different detachments took support ships and manpower away from the target and left her with a skeleton force and only a fraction of her snubfighter force. Unfortunately, two of the diversionary targets did not hold the interest of the forces sent to take them, including the spoofed Bacta convoy you personally set up.”

Del blanched visibly at the reminder that his phase of the plan had failed, and gulped visibly.

Barand continued, staring icily at the hotheaded captain. “In turn, two of those detachments came back at a most inopportune moment in our fight and appeared right on top of our borrowed Interdictor Cruiser and her escorts, which were then destroyed or forced to flee under the combined firepower of two frigates and their support ships. In turn, the Vigilant was able to retreat to safety while we were left with some minor damage and a bruised reputation.” Barand stood up and continued staring directly at Captain Del. “Had just one more of the diversionary targets accomplished their mission properly, the Interdictor could have held off a single frigate and we would have carried the day. It is most unfortunate that this was not the case. Would you care to explain why the Bacta convoy was discovered to be a fake so quickly?”

Del was trapped, and he knew he’d pressed too hard earlier in the discussion. He was now panicking clearly, but could not form words to reply.

Barand nodded as he blindly tapped a few commands into his pocketed datapad out of sight of the holocam. “That’s ok, Captain Del. My intelligence resources confirmed my suspicion that the convoy was not put together in a convincing fashion, which falls squarely upon your head. I was content to deal with this in a private manner, more becoming a man of your rank and stature, but your brash nature forced my hand in this case. The bacta that was supposed to be placed on those freighters was not there.”

Barand leaned back in his seat and continued. “The Rebels did not linger long enough to offload the cargo. The moment their 6 ships docked and offloaded troops and those troops saw droid crews and empty supply bunkers, they formed up and left.”

The information regarding the droid crews and empty ships drew shocked reactions from most officers in attendance. Captain Del, however, began to fidget visibly in his chair.

“As this council of officers know, we decided the crewing of this mission from the bridge crew down to the janitorial droids. We decided how much Bacta to ‘lose’ to be convincing, how many pilots should be used to put up a convincing resistance, and how many losses we would accept before retreating.”

Captain Del was sweating profusely at this point, which was not a detail that was easy to pick out on regular video comms. This was yet another reason Barand had decided to use the HoloNet in a high-definition mode. It lent an air of impressive wealth, but also allowed you to see minute details more clearly.

“So, Captain Del, if all of this was planned and put to bits for you to execute, where did all of those extra assets, pilots, crews, and cargo go? Clearly they weren’t deployed on the freighters.” Barand put his hand up to forestall any excuse and derail his rhythm and cadence. “Nevermind your explanations or excuses. Please open the door to the next person that knocks and relinquish your service blaster and rank cylinder. You are hereby relieved of your command,” he said cheerfully. “Do not be afraid, Captain. I am not Lord Vader or any of your previous Imperial lords. I do not kill subordinates for merely failing at a task. Nor do I plan to kill you for attempting to steal from us in this case. This decision, of course, is weighted against your otherwise competent service record prior to this incident. You will be free to go so long as you cooperate with my agent that should be knocking… now. I just wish you were comfortable enough with me to talk to me about any possible money issues you were running into personally before deciding that attempting to steal from us was the only option available to you.”

Del’s head whipped around as a loud knock was heard over the audio channel from his place in the holonet meeting. “Enter,” he said offscreen as he killed the feed from his end. A loud scuffle punctuated by a blaster shot rang out over the audio channel, however, causing everyone but Barand to flinch.

After a tense few moments, the video feed came back on and a new person was sitting in Del’s position. “Sir, Captain Del attempted to shoot me with his blaster. He has been killed. It could not be avoided.”

Barand sat dramatically, giving off an air of disbelief and sadness. “What a disappointing turn of events, Sergeant. Please have his executive officer take over his command and let her know that I will be contacting her shortly with more instructions.”

“Understood, Sir,” the agent replied, killing both the audio and video feed. Silence permeated throughout the meeting.

The meeting was bathed in a pregnant silence. “What an unfortunate turn of events indeed,” Barand said again to break the silence. The officers in the meeting murmured in agreement. Some will think I was soft for allowing the opportunity for this officer to leave with his life after he betrayed me. They will, however, see that I can be fair, and that if they serve loyally, no problem big or small should be hidden from me. And they will also see that attempting to run has dire consequences.

Barand clasped his hands in front of himself and leaned forward. “Let’s try to put this unpleasantness behind us and attempt to make a plan for our soon-to-be guests.”

Commander Videl spoke first. “Commodore, how do you intend to make sure the Rebels attack the target we hope they attack? While I agree that Lieutenant Baleon’s sector is a likely target, there is still no way of knowing exactly where they will attack. It could be anywhere, with an overwhelming force.”

Barand nodded in agreement, and pretended to think on the matter. After a few moments of fake-pensivity, he stood again. “I want you all to broadcast in your regular status reports that you are having a specific issue with some sort of system in your outposts or ships. Could be water systems, sewage, power fluctuations, et cetera. I will provide you with your unique issue to start reporting back to me. You will go on as if the problem exists, including requisitioning the required parts to effect the repairs in an orderly fashion befitting the urgency of the feigned issue. This will allow our spies to intercept some sort of communique that the rebels will state their target will have X issue. That will give us the exact location of their target, and allow us time to prepare a warm welcome.”

The officers all nodded enthusiastically at the pure genius of the idea. All but Baleon. After the applause and other noises of approval diminished, he spoke. “Commodore Sir, how will we entice them to attack a specific target, though?”

Barand smiled broadly. “We’re going to make your outpost's reported problem the most enticing of all.”

Baleon looked even more confused. “Sir?”

“We’re going to report that your brand new TIE factories are low on manpower and are becoming less efficient, requiring more bodies by any means necessary, including slave labor,” Barand replied confidently. “There is a very small chance they will ignore that type of injustice along with an irresistible target.”

Baleon looked perplexed. “What TIE factories?” He looked off screen as if to ask a subordinate if they had new facilities he wasn’t aware of.

Barand laughed politely. “They are a ruse, Baleon. The reason we will know they will come for your base above all others.”

Baleon attempted to smile and nod as if he’d understood, but it was clear that he still did not.

Perhaps I was too quick to heap praise upon this man earlier. We’ll have to wait and see how he performs in the coming days to make that decision. Still though, it might help that I go to personally oversee things over there.

*********************************

CRS Vigilant Pilot Bunk Room
POV: Bulldog

Bulldog looked at his rucksack as it laid on the empty bunk across the room still unpacked. He sat on his bunk and stared at it, wondering if he truly wanted to pack it up or not. His shared billet had not been filled yet with the recent losses the wing had taken, so he was ostensibly still in a single room. This provided a real opportunity to have an enjoyable staycation while the rest of the wing enjoyed shore leave. Finally, a chance to have some alone time with zero responsibilities!

He’d broached that subject with Zeq’aal earlier in the morning, and she assured him that if he so chose to stay onboard, she would sign off on it for therapeutic purposes. She’d even said it might be smart to avoid a situation where alcohol could be found freely without a controlled environment that the Vigilant provided.

“I don’t think I’ll go anywhere,” he said aloud, punctuating the finality of the resolution with a quick nod of approval.

R2-W8 tootled from the corner of the room, still plugged into a wall socket to charge his internal batteries.

Bulldog looked over to his R2 unit. He was getting a little better at understanding the audible language of his astromech companion, but he still wasn’t quite at the level of fluency he’d prefer. That fluency would come with more time, but in the meantime he was still blundering through it with assumptions. Still, the tone seemed pleasant. “Yeah, Weight. I didn’t want to leave you alone.”

Weight let out a disappointed bleat.

“I don’t think they’d have let me take you on shore leave anyway, buddy,” Bulldog replied. “You’d be a security risk if a droid snatcher got you.”

Weight tweeted sarcastically.

“Just go back to your wall intercourse, all right? Or better yet, you take my shore leave so I can finally have some peace and quiet and turn my brain off!”

Weight hooted what Bulldog assumed was a treatise on the intricacies of charging in different locations or the pros and cons of defragging your hard drive often, and it almost drowned out his datapad’s insistent chirping. Picking it up, he saw an urgent summons from Lt. Colonel Chris “Jalb_k” Reynolds. He rose quickly and made for the exit, only stopping to wave to Weight. “Got to go. We can finish this discussion later.”

He made his way down the nearly deserted hallways to the command billets and offices. At this point in the Vigilant’s journey, most of the wing personnel were probably still packing their bags for shore leave, meaning nobody was out in the hallways. It was a good preview of what was in store for Bulldog’s planned staycation. He swipe-texted a quick message to Zeq’aal requesting medical clearance to stay onboard the Vigilant, hoping the doctor would see it and reply in time for him to show to Jalb at this meeting in case his CO balked at the idea of him skipping shore leave.

He rounded a corner with his face buried in his datapad, proofing his message before hitting send. He was verbally muttering and debating with himself the entire time, shaking and nodding his head animatedly as he verbally argued the points for or against. He heard a noise and looked up as he thumbed the send button for his message. A confused-looking Snivvian galley worker standing with some dirty cookery was in front of him. After a moment, the Snivvian nodded in an exaggerated fashion used to placate a crazed animal and backed away slowly. Once he reached what he thought was a safe distance, the alien spun on his heels and speed-walked away from the seemingly insane pilot and took the first possible turn into a new hallway.

Bulldog shook his head in embarrassment. His datapad chirped again, and he temporarily shook off the shame that would surely return to him for years to come the way his other embarrassing follies from years past had a habit of doing. He resumed his trek to Jalb’s office at a quickened pace to make up for the delay. He rounded the last corner and stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth agape in shock. No karking way…

Walking toward him was a ghost from his past. This banshee had tormented him what seemed like an eternity ago, despite it only being a little over a month. He’d repressed the memory of this ghost so far down that it seemed like it was a kid’s nightmare monster rather than a Bothan ex-general that had made his life a living hell and gotten many of his friends hurt in the process.

Shen’ryu flashed a feral smile full of teeth as he neared Bulldog. He stopped an arm-length away and made a show of sizing up the stunned pilot. He looked around, and then leaned in close and made a tsk tsk.

Bulldog flinched at the hot breath on his face, but recovered his senses and stood at attention and threw up a salute, intentionally bringing his hand close to Shen’ryu’s face in the process.

The Bothan flinched back, and growled after he regained his composure. “Look at you, a 1st Lieutenant now,” he purred dangerously. “And a member of Rogue Squadron to boot! My, you’ve advanced nicely I’d say.”

Bulldog held the salute and stood stock still, staring straight ahead with a neutral expression on his face.

Over the Bothan’s shoulders, Zimm’s apparition reappeared and had a disgusted look on his face. “Who is this short-man syndrome guy?”

Bulldog’s neutral expression broke into shock and a little frown creased his lips.

“What’s that, nothing to say to your old CO?” Shen’ryu rumbled quietly. “I see your demeanor has improved. Not a lick of insubordination in you anymore. I knew your time under my tutelage would bear fruit eventually, no matter how hard-headed you were back then. Still a little skittish I see,” he added with a mean-spirited chuckle.

“Colonel Shen’ryu,” Jalb’s voice boomed from down the hall. “If you wouldn’t mind releasing my pilot, I need to speak with him immediately, Sir.”

Shen’ryu stepped back quickly and returned Bulldog’s salute lazily. He looked back toward Jalb down the hallway, shooting lightsabers with his eyes. “Of course, LIEUTENANT Colonel Reynolds. I was just admiring Lieutenant Clark’s progress since we’ve last crossed paths.” He clasped his hands behind his back and strolled back the way Bulldog had come, whistling as he went.

Bulldog ended the salute and balled his fists at his sides. His pulse was rapid but declining quickly now that his old antagonist had left, as had Zimm’s apparition. He rolled his shoulders to ease the tension that had built up, and shook his head clear as he began walking toward Jalb’s office. “What is going on with me?” He mumbled under his breath.

Jalb met him at the door with a sympathetic look. “Yeah, I know. Same bucket of hutt drool as before,” he said with a quiet chuckle.

A tight smile appeared on Bulldog’s face as he reached the Rogue Squadron OC. He stopped and threw up another crisp salute. “Lieutenant Clark reporting as ordered, Sir.”

Jalb returned the salute properly, and then motioned him inside.

Bulldog stepped inside and saw two more occupants in the room. He paused in shock for the second time over the span of a minute, but recovered quickly enough and threw up another salute.

Captain Roy “Lock” Callahan returned the salute quickly, the same uneasy smile on his face that was on Bulldog’s.

Zimm was just behind Lock and made a disgusted face. “I don’t like this guy,” he said. He started making faces and rude gestures at the Rogue pilot.

Bulldog did his best to hide his confusion and shock on his face this time, but he was sure his face made him look constipated.

“Gentlemen, have a seat,” Jalb said while still in the hallway. “Colonel Rambo and Lieutenant Colonel Morrison will be here shortly as well, and then we’ll get started.”

Bulldog and Lock each took an open chair in front of Jalb’s spartan desk and settled in for a wait of an indeterminate amount of time.

Neither pilot had a good feeling about this.

“I wonder what this is all about,” Zimm mused out loud, lounging on a filing cabinet against the far wall. “I wish I had some Outpost Mix and a high caf soda.”

**********************************

CRS Vigilant Officer’s Quarters
POV: Lock

Leave was canceled. What a surprise.

Lock watched silently as the briefing progressed, his expression cold as marble. There was not a single person in this room that wanted to be here, except for that bastard Shen’ryu, who kept flashing toothy bothan smiles every time he paused. The fact that he technically wasn’t present in body didn’t change the fact that the recording he’d left with Jalb that included the basics of the mission profile still felt as if the antagonistic Bothan was sitting over each man’s shoulders in the room.

He couldn’t help but wonder who had thought it was a bright idea to bring this being near any member of Renegade Wing again after the disaster as Mukani and Nabrisk. Stryker had not removed his helmet and Jalb kept staring at the bothan like he was waiting for him to give him any reason to call this off. Both Jedi and Bulldog seemed fairly uncomfortable, to say the least.

After the debacle that had gotten fifteen cadet pilots killed, Lock would have assumed that the Bothan would have gotten drummed out of the New Republic Military, but someone with political connections had taken it upon themselves to save Shen’ryu’s career. So instead of eternal disgrace, the incident was swept under the rug. Shen’ryu received a quiet demotion similar to Jalb’s, and had been discreetly transferring into New Republic Intelligence--what a joke! As if Shen’ryu possessed an ounce of intelligence in his entire body!

Shen’ryu had specifically requested both Bulldog and Lock for this mission. As it had turned out, Bulldog being some sort of savant in a Y-Wing had gotten around, which had made him the perfect partner for Lock, who was bringing covert extraction to the table. Both of them being Rogue pilots factored in as well. They would be flying a two-manned Longprobe Y-Wing into enemy territory as part of a wide spread operation to gather information on Tol Barand, the Imperial holdout that had laid the recent trap for the Vigilant and had also delivered the first bloody nose to the newly reformed Renegade Wing at Nabrisk.

In part, Lock knew that this was the first chance in avenging those they’d lost… but another was simply tired, and very much not looking forward to spending the next few days in cramped quarters with Bulldog. The white haired pilot glanced over at his companion. Another point against the Bothan’s “intelligence.” Who had thought it was a good idea to pair the two of them together? Shen’ryu was a kriffin’ moron.

Lock would have to tell Gremlin to cancel his reservation to the beach; the only way Lock was getting a tan was if Bulldog’s farts were as radioactive as they smelled.

“I look forward to reading your detailed report on the target planet, pilots. It is vital that you identify the layout of the base, status of the forces located at the base, and look for possible slave presence at their TIE factories,” Shen’ryu said on the screen. He paused, and flashed anything but a pleasant smile before continuing. “I expect you both to do it by the book, and leave no stone unturned. Colonel Shen’ryu out.”

The screen went black, yet nobody seemed to be in a hurry to break the welcome silence. Bulldog shifted loudly in the seat next to Lock.

Jalb stepped forward. “Right. Well, it looks like the two of you were hand-picked by the Colonel for this one.”

Jedi rolled his neck. “This briefing is extremely light on details for a mission of this sort, even if it is a recon mission. The Colonel has provided no details on insertion and exfil, nor has he provided any sort of background information on the target planet. I didn’t even catch the name, did any of you?”

“Sirs, not to speak out of turn,” Lock began, looking at Bulldog, and then back to Jalb as he tried to find a way to frame his thoughts into a diplomatic line of reasoning. “I think the… disagreements between myself and the Lieutenant make us fairly incompatible for a mission of this stature.”

Bulldog shifted again in his seat, but this time it seemed he was moving as far away from Lock as possible. He was looking at a wall behind Jedi with a strange look on his face.

“I happen to agree with everyone’s thoughts on the matter,” Stryker agreed. “This seems… highly irregular, even for a mission coming from NRI. It almost seems intentionally malicious.”

Jedi nodded in agreement. “Aye, I got the same vibe. I think we should petition for more information before we commit two valuable pilots.”

“Gentlemen, I’m not sure you know the Colonel as well as myself, the Captain, and the Lieutenant here,” Jalb said uneasily. “You’re not wrong that it’s odd and very, very targeted. I honestly think he’s pushing for this to be very… difficult.”

“Then it’s settled,” Jedi said as he clapped his hands once. “We tell the Colonel to kiss our wookies and Callahan and Clark go enjoy the shore leave they’ve earned.”

Jalb put a hand up. “If I know the Colonel, then I know he’s dotted all of his Leth’s and crossed all of his Trill’s on the backend paperwork for this thing. There will be no way out of it through the normal channels.”

Stryker nodded. “I concur with Reynolds from my very small sample-size with the Bothan. I unfortunately think we’re committed to this mission as it is laid out.” Stryker turned to look upon both seated pilots. “Do either of you want to sit this one out? We can figure out a replacement for one or both of you, but I think this mission is going to have to go forward as it has been presented regardless how those of us in the room feel about it.”

“So what you’re saying is that karking Bothan played the ‘Idiot’s Array’ and we just have to take it?” Jedi spat.

Lock rose to his feet. “I am not willing to let anybody else go in my stead for this one, Sirs. Even if that means figuring out a way to make it work with Lieutenant Clark.”

Jalb nodded to Lock with a tight smile on his face. He, along with all others in the room looked to the seated Bulldog, who still seemed to be focused on a random spot on the wall. The pilot appeared on the surface to be absentmindedly gazing off into the distance, but it was clear his eyes were focused on something that nobody else could see. Jalb coughed loudly. “Lieutenant Clark?”

Bulldog’s eyes snapped onto Jalb. “We’re your guys, Sir,” he said as he rose to his feet.

************************************

Imperial Listening Outpost

The computers were spinning up into overdrive as they worked on decrypting the latest burst of comm traffic that was just intercepted. The three officers nearby were startled from their usual state of boredom as they looked around at each other in shock. Moments later, the monitor sprung to life and started spitting out lines of text.

“That can’t be right, can it?”

“Since when do we have a TIE facility there?”

“Make sense to put something important like that in a relatively backwater sector to hide it,” another officer replied with a shrug.

“Sure, but we would have heard something about it being built, wouldn’t we?” The first officer responded.

“They don’t tell us anything,” the second outpost officer said glumly.

The door whooshed open at that instant. A crisp looking Lieutenant strode through the threshold confidently. He looked around expectantly. “What news?”

The three officers shot to their feet and straightened out their rumpled uniforms. “Sir! We’ve intercepted rebel communications indicating a possible move against the TIE facilities in the Skoth System of the Felicrest Sector.”

The Lieutenant frowned. “We have TIE facilities in Felicrest?”

“Right?”

“Better pass it on I suppose,” the Lieutenant sighed with a shrug. “Set up a holonet message for Commodore Barand in 5 minutes. I’ll go pass this along to Colonel Quinn,” he said as he went back to his office.

The three men left behind all looked at each other.

“Not it!”

“Not it!”

“Not- ugh,” the unluckily slow officer groaned. “What are you two doing that’s got you so busy that you can’t do it?”

“I’m going to grab a ration bar,” the first officer said as he walked toward the small galley.

The second officer stood up and belched loudly while holding his stomach. “Boss gets paid in Beskar, I make a chit- that’s why active duty is when I take a-”

The slow officer held up his hands to forestall the rest of the rhyme. “Ok, ok I get it. Light a match this time!”

*******

ISD Conviction Commander’s Stateroom
POV: Tol Barand

Commodore Barand sat in his relatively spartan stateroom looking over the intentionally spoofed status reports his subordinates were sending in. Cursory examination showed that they all had done exactly as he’d asked, seeding the field with bait of different levels of attractiveness meant to attract varying sizes of game.

“Yes, this all looks to be in order,” he said aloud to nobody in particular aside from the listening devices he knew to be planted in here by some of his less than loyal subordinates. He knew they were there despite not discovering them because it was the exact sort of thing he had done when he worked with the ISB.

He stood and examined the galactic map containing the latest information he had on the goings-on of the galaxy. His relatively small-but-growing sphere of control was beset on multiple fronts by various foes or would-be foes. He traced his fingers along a few different tracks, moving units to various staging areas for a few more annexation operations that would bring in new supply bases but also improve his defensive situation. He knew that this was also more than likely being recorded, which is why he was doing almost the exact opposite of his intended plans. “These three systems are the key to our continued expansion,” he said with enough conviction to throw off his probable evesdroppers.

His comlink chirped, jolting him from his study.

“Important message on the holonet addressed to you, eyes-only, Commodore,” his secretary mentioned via comlink.

“Thank you,” Barand purred. “I’ll take it at my desk terminal.”

“Forwarded, Commodore.”

Barand moved back to his seat and covertly swept for any camera devices that would have a view of his screen. He allowed the spying on all other areas of his office, but he could not allow them to have a view of his terminal. His anti-video device chirped affirmative in his earpiece, letting him know that the area around his terminal was clean.

He sat and pretended to watch the message, and put on a show that he was attempting to view a garbled video by leaning in close and squinting. In the same motion, his right hand laid to rest on the datapad on his desk. To any observer, it would look like an absent-minded gesture. To add to the theatrics, he gently keyed his datapad to play a staticy mess of an old communique he’d stored for this particular purpose.

In the meantime, he uploaded the audio of the message to his datapad and clicked for it to play in his earpiece where no listening device could hear.

“This is Colonel Quinn at Listening Outpost LV42. We have intercepted rebel comm traffic indicating a strike at TIE facilities in the Felicrest sector, Skoth System. Strike date and composition is included in the data packet included in this message, Commodore.”

“Ensign Kessen?” Barand said aloud after the message had concluded, making sure to secure the data packet the message mentioned while appearing to idly fiddle with his fingers.

“Yes, Commodore?” His secretary replied over the comlink.

“This message appears to be degraded or corrupted. I only received snippets of clear speech through the static, and the video was likewise scrambled.”

“I see, Sir. The message hasn’t been tampered with that I know of.”

He made a show of looking around the office, hovering slightly over the likely spots where spy devices may be installed. “Perhaps there is some type of electromagnetic interference source in my stateroom that is causing the issue. Call in maintenance to perform a sweep to see if they can lock that down.”

“Work order entered with maintenance, Commodore.”

Barand smiled. “Thank you, Ensign. Please have the maintenance team keep me apprised of the results. I am hoping that message indicates that our plans are ready to be put into motion, but I cannot confirm that until I can see and hear the message clearly.” Let those onlookers panic at the thought of their intrusions being discovered. Their distraction with covering their tracks will give me the time I need to make the necessary moves to improve our holdings as well as eliminate the coming strike force that has unwittingly fallen into our trap.

“Ensign, please have Captain Jaevion meet me in his office for a meeting in 5 minutes. I need his martial expertise for an upcoming training maneuver. Include Commander Feing in that meeting as well, please. I think he’s recovered enough for active duty.”

************************************

CRS Vigilant Auxiliary Hangar
POV: Bulldog

Bulldog ran his fingers along the hull of the modified Y-Wing they had been assigned for this mission. The darker than usual exterior appeared to be in good condition, with only minor pitting or scuffing common with regular wear and tear. The welds between the wishbone-shaped nacelles and the rest of the fighter looked to be recently reinforced, drawing an approving nod from the pilot. The only thing different than his old Y-Wing was the lack of a topside SW-4 ion cannon. That drew a frown from the pilot, as his offensive capabilities were essentially chopped in half by the lack of that weapon. In its stead was a dome that appeared to contain more sensor modules to help the ship get accurate readings from farther away.

R2-W8 rolled over and tootled pleasantly.

“Yeah, I think the ship looks good,” Bulldog replied, guessing at what his astromech was saying. “Of course, we won’t know until we get you plugged into the socket to run diagnostics though,” he said as he looked around the otherwise empty auxiliary hangar. For the first time since he’d arrived, he realized how odd it was that the hangar was empty. This was where a large majority of the tug fleet was housed. Also missing were the usual movable ladders and lifts that allowed pilots to easily enter the cockpit and astromechs to be inserted into their sockets. He scratched his head. There also weren’t any techs or deck crew whatsoever, which was extremely strange. “Though… I don’t see a way to get you up there and plugged in, buddy.”

Weight’s head rotated, and he hooted an alert.

Bulldog followed his droid’s ocular sensor and saw Lock approaching at a leisurely pace, a white with black accented astromech following in his wake. He nodded a greeting to the approaching pilot.

Lock waved back as he approached, stopping a few meters away and looked over their assigned ship. “This thing is ancient,” he declared after a brief glance. “I wonder why we’re not taking a U-Wing? Would certainly be a more comfortable trip.”

Bulldog grunted in agreement and shrugged his shoulders.

“Man, I haven’t been in one of these antiques in a loooooooong time,” Lock said, waxing nostalgic. “How’s she look?”

Bulldog grunted in acknowledgement at the question and nodded affirmative. “Looks good from the outside, but I wanted to get Weight plugged into the socket to run some diagnostics before I feel comfortable lifting off. Just not sure how to get him up there without a crane…”

“You mean all R2 units don’t have concealed jetpack appendages?” Lock asked, looking at both Weight and his droid, R2-CK10. Both droids turned their domes back and forth and let out an identical low tone.

“I didn’t know that was a thing,” Bulldog mused. “Heard a rumor once,” Lock replied absentmindedly as he too was looking around the vacant hangar. “I wonder how we’re going to get Seekay up there?”

“We’re taking Weight.”

“Absolutely not. We need an astromech with specialized recon and intrusion capabilities. We’re taking Seekay,” Lock replied, crossing his arms.

Bulldog stepped closer to his assigned co-pilot for this mission until he was within a few inches of the man. “Let’s try this again. I’m flying, so we’re taking my astromech that knows how I like to fly and can supplement my stick skills the way I like them to be supplemented.”

Lock uncrossed his arms and rose to his full height, which still put him at a 2 cm disadvantage to the huskier pilot. “I have been fine-tuning Seekay with the best software and hardware upgrades for just this type of mission. He’s the better fit for this assignment. See sense, you dense idiot.”

“Are you flying?” Bulldog retorted. “Because I thought Jalb told me I was flying.”

“I outrank you and have nominal command of the mission, Lieutenant.”

“I’m the captain on that ship, and that outranks a new captain like yourself.”

“We’re not on that ship yet, Chief.”

Zimm appeared behind Lock and snorted. “Hit this oomay already,” he said.

Bulldog snapped a bit and stepped closer, bumping chests with Lock and pushing him back with his bulk. “Even a chief outranks a captain, Captain.”

While this was going on, Bulldog’s black and red astromech wheeled into Lock’s white and black astromech with a loud clang that reverberated off of the walls of the cavernous hangar. Seekay warbled in surprise and responded in kind. The two droids locked chassis and continued their shoving match, leaving blackened skid marks on the otherwise pristine deck plating as their wheels revved up but didn’t cause any motion.

Zimm’s apparition whistled ominously. “Wackachangi’s not going to like those marks on his deck one bit.”

“Back up off of me!” Lock responded, shoving Bulldog away from him with both of his hands. “I’m going to plant-” he was cut off by a sharp shove by his mission partner into his chest, taking the wind out of his lungs momentarily.

“Yeah! Get him!” Zimm’s apparition cheered.

Lock recovered quickly and drove his shoulder into Bulldog’s stomach. He went down with an audible oof while Lock finished the tackle and landed on top of the stunned brawler.

Bulldog recovered quickly and trapped Lock’s arm with his and rolled backward with the momentum of the tackle, dragging Lock over top of him. The plan was to end up on top of the lighter pilot so he could control the engagement with his weight, but his wiry opponent managed to sneak his legs on either side of his arm, putting the back of his legs firmly against Bulldog’s shoulder.

Lock thrust his hips forward while he gripped Bulldog’s meaty forearm with his hands. He growled in exertion as his back landed on the cold deck of the hangar, continuing to thrust his hips forward while his opponent’s elbow began to torque in the opposite direction. “I’ll pop it out, I swear to kriff!”

“Oh snap!” Zimm winced in the background, his hand covering his mouth in shock.

Bulldog roared as he stood up, picking Lock up off the ground in the process. The pressure against his elbow was relieved momentarily with Lock’s loss of leverage. Before his opponent could reapply the pressure, he dropped to the ground suddenly, slamming Lock to the hard deck. Now he had the advantage over the stunned pilot, and he prepared to straddle him and raised his fist.

“Smash that sucker, yeah!” Zimm cheered.

A loud crackle emanated from behind Bulldog. Before he could turn to identify the source, electricity flooded through his entire body. He spasmed immediately, and his back and shoulders arched up and locked into position. He lost complete control of his body and fell to his knees. Still unable to control his limbs, he started to topple forward. He was going to land hard, face first, and unable to will his arms to move to break his fall.

Lock recovered his senses and extricated himself from beneath the incapacitated pilot before his bulk could crush him. He swung his legs over his head and performed a fluid kick up into a combat crouch. Over Bulldog’s still spasming shoulder was Seekay, his arc-welder still pumping volts of electricity through his opponent. He raised a fist and prepared to lay his antagonist out with a heavy haymaker.

FWOOOOOSH

Before Lock could deliver his knockout blow, a cloud of carbon dioxide erupted into his face. He quickly found it hard to breathe as all of the oxygen his pounding lungs were attempting to draw in was immediately vacated from his immediate area. As he fell away, he caught the red and black outline of Bulldog’s astromech continuing to advance through the sudden cloud. He was gasping for oxygen as the R2 unit’s fire extinguisher continued to spew the cloud of gas in his direction.

“ENOUGH!” Shen'ryu's voice boomed across the hangar. There was also another, more sinister chuckling after that command.

Seekay’s arc-welder ceased, as did Weight’s fire extinguisher. Both pilots laid on the deck, panting heavily.

Shen'ryu clapped slowly as he slowly approached the two heaving pilots. “That was quite a show! Bravo!”

Lock was the first to his feet, and he stood at attention with a salute. Bulldog, on the other hand, stayed on the ground, still twitching from the last vestiges of electricity that had been coursing through his nervous system.

Shenryu nudged the downed pilot with his boot, sneering. “On your feet, Lieutenant!”

Bulldog attempted to rise, but he still didn’t have enough of his wherewithal back to regain his footing.

“I. Said. Get. Up,” the Bothan growled, kicking Bulldog’s hip with a little more force.

“Give him a minute. He just took a ton of voltage,” Lock said, taking a halting step forward before remembering his military discipline.

“Stand at attention, Captain,” Shen'ryu growled, putting out a hand to stop Lock from intervening. He knelt down, his nose wrinkling at the smell of ozone wafting up from the recently electrocuted pilot. “Lieutenant, you will stand before me at attention within the next 10 seconds or I will have you tossed into the brig and lose the key.”

“Sir, it is the Captain’s duty to report any such unlawful activity to another superior officer,” Lock said, attempting to draw fire for his fallen partner.

Shen'ryu exploded out of his crouch and whirled around to face Lock. He took two large steps to bring himself within a hair’s breadth of the pilot, looking up into the eyes of the pilot. To Lock’s credit, he didn’t flinch, and that enraged Shen'ryu even more. “What’s that, Captain? Did I hear that you want some insubordination charges and to join the Lieutenant in the brig?”

Bulldog groaned as he again attempted to rise, this time rolling to his stomach and making it to his hands and knees. He still wasn’t completely coordinated or focused, however, and he stayed in that position. He was apparently completely oblivious to the situation unfolding. Drool leaked from his mouth and dripped onto the floor.

“Colonel, Sir,” Lock started, still staring straight ahead at the magcon field to avoid making eye contact. “The security recordings of this hangar would surely show the truth. Once the rest of the command staff views this recording, they will scrap this mission due to our fight. They will also know that whatever charges you lay out will not be supported.”

Shen'ryu chuckled maliciously as he backed away. He looked around the room at the usual camera locations and mockingly waved at each of them in turn. After the display, he turned and faced Lock with his hands clasped behind his back. “Captain, if you think these cameras are currently active, then you are sorely mistaken,” he said as he held up an unfamiliar handheld device. “Nifty little tool that NRI provides their senior agents. Automatically disables security cameras and recording devices. We are given very… wide latitude with regard to mission secrecy protocols, hence no recordings and no miscellaneous crew.”

“The… Droids,” Bulldog huffed out as he slowly pushed himself to his feet and came to attention woozily.

Shen'ryu smiled as he turned to face the other pilot. “He speaks!” He stepped over and patted Bulldog on the shoulder, getting a healthy shock in the process. He withdrew his hand and shook it to alleviate the sudden sharp pain. After he regained his composure, he continued. “You mean your astromechs? Ah, yes, they will be fitted with restraining bolts and stored under my personal lock and key. They won’t be telling anybody anything. And if either of you attempt to talk, some sad mishap will befall them and they will both suffer a catastrophic meltdown in their datacores.”

Bulldog’s face creased in worry. “You can’t!” he slurred out.

Lock, being less attached to his droid due to their relatively new relationship, wasn’t nearly as worried about the threat to Seekay. Still though, he did not press the issue.

Shen'ryu nodded assuredly to himself. “Now that we all understand who holds all the cards here, let’s get down to it, yes?” He walked over to the droids and slapped restraining bolts onto both of them before either of them could react. He immediately deactivated them with his remote, then turned to face the two pilots. “You two will fly this mission because that’s how I want it done. Nobody will know about your little tussle, and nobody will tell anybody about it or else your little tincan buddies will suffer. Understood?”

Neither pilot responded verbally.

“I’ll take that as a yes. And you might be wondering what will stop you from transmitting their vid log of this exchange once you are both on that longprobe Y-Wing and out from under my thumb. Well, that’s because neither of them will be used for this mission. He tapped a button on his datapad.

Moments later, a grating sound assaulted the ears of the three men. From the same doorway Shen'ryu had entered previously, an older model green and yellow astromech droid rolled toward the trio in fits and starts. The wheels were grinding on something internally, and they were also rough and ragged enough that when one seized, it would scratch the deck while the other two wheels continued dragging the broken down bot forward until the seizure vibrated itself out and the wheel continued to spin. It came to a stuttering halt near the Y-Wing and regarded the 3 beings with what appeared to be complete disinterest. The grinding sound reverberated for a bit until finally dying down.

“This is a C1 model astromech. It may look like junk, because it is. I assure you though that it still has the capability to plot safe hyper jumps. I know that you both probably think my aim is to kill you by some accident. I assure you that if I wanted you two dead, you’d be dead already,” Shen'ryu said with a predatory smile. “No, this droid has all of the subroutines necessary for this mission to gather intelligence. No other bells and whistles aside from the usual astrogation capabilities and extra storage banks to back up data in the event of the ship being destroyed, however.”

Shen'ryu tapped his datapad again. Moments later, a large doorway opened to reveal a crew of droid techs, a ladder, and an astromech crane. The new arrivals moved into the hangar quickly and began the work of getting the Y-Wing prepared for takeoff.

“You two will be leaving immediately after the techs finish their work. We will all retire to this office, where you will find your flight gear waiting and ready for you to change. Your sidearms are already in the cockpit of the recon fighter so you cannot shoot me and then run off to your precious Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds. Your controls and communications systems have a proximity lock that will not work while in the same system as me. The moment your ship jumps to hyperspace, you will have full access to your controls and systems.”

“You expect us to trust you after all of this?” Lock asked incredulously.

Shen'ryu laughed. “No, but I expect you to go anyway.”

“What if we refuse to move from this spot?” Bulldog said, crossing his arms across his chest.

Shen'ryu slowly drew his blaster and raised it, but didn’t directly aim at either pilot. “Then I’ll stun you both right now, have the droids put you into that cockpit, and have the ship take off and jump to lightspeed on autopilot. You might wake up in time to do your jobs, might not,” the Bothan said with a dismissive shrug.

Both pilots looked at each other ominously.

Shen'ryu gestured to the office he’d indicated earlier. “Your gear awaits, gentlemen.”

**********

Hyperspace
POV: Lock

"Droid, what is our ETA?"

At the sound of Bulldog's voice Lock's eyes snapped open. Was he asking again? The corellian's irritability since being assigned this mission only grew. First, no shore leave. Then Shen'ryu. Then this ogre. Lock closed his eyes again, trying to push it all away.

"Droid," Bulldog began again. "What is our--"

"Droid," Lock interrupted, putting on his best 'dumb caveman voice.' The impatience and annoyance in his voice was impossible to mask as he added, "What time? Why I no shut the frak up?"

"Pff," Bulldog snorted with equal irritability. Lock didn't need to turn around to look at the other pilot to know that he wanted to say more but was doing his best effort to keep his mouth shut.

Lock knew that he was in the wrong here, but he was still heated over the confrontation they'd had in the Hangar. To be interrupted and dressed down by Shen'ryu of all people, as well... In a way he felt ashamed of his behaviour, but was unable to keep himself from lashing out at Bulldog as a result. As the ranking officer he should probably be the one trying to keep things professional. It was impossible to keep a fire under control when someone kept dumping liters of fuel all over it.

There was an irony to this, to being trapped in here with him. They both existed in this small enclosed space, hating each other’s guts, but expected to function as a unit. If the two had been a million light years away from each other, the chasm that existed between them would still seem irreparably infinite, a mathematical constant, a law of physics, and forever be such.

The thought of starting any kind of conversation caused a knot in Lock’s stomach; not because it was Bulldog, but because he knew that pretty soon one of the two, or maybe even both of them, would be retiring to the farm sooner or later if they continued this line of work, and the better you knew them and liked them the more bitter the loss would be. Knowing him was bitter enough.

Once silence reigned in the cockpit, Lock allowed his eyes to close once more. Maybe he'd finally get some peace and quiet...

"Sh'ddap," Bulldog murmured, barely high enough for it to register with Lock.

The Corellian opened his eyes and turned his head slightly to glance back towards Bulldog.

"Shut up," Bulldog repeated, this time a little louder.

"Excuse me?" Lock asked.

"Not you," Bulldog answered icily.

Lock glanced over at his console to see if the droid had sent a text message but the droid had been silent since the last time Bulldog had requested a time check. Confused by this latest development, Lock had to ask, "Who are you talking to?"

Bulldog shook his head. "Nobody."

"Are you going kriffin' space crazy on me?"

"Droid, please inform the Captain that I am not going space crazy," Bulldog said, turning back towards his console to ignore Lock.

Rolling his eyes he fired back, "Droid, please ask the Lieutenant where he goes when he's not paying attention."

Bulldog visibly tensed. "Nowhere," he growled. "Focus on your job, corellian hot shot."

"You focus on your job, sky trash," Lock answered, letting his anger get the better of him. He was tired of holding back, and this nerf brain was asking for it. "My life is in your hands, so I need to know you're not going kriffin’ space-blastin'-crazy!"

Bulldog attempted to whirl around, but the restraints on his pilot's couch restricted that movement. He attempted to flail a fist back anyway, but only succeeded in hitting the extra instrument panels that the cramped Long Probe Y-Wing's cockpit held, which prompted a string of curses as he nursed his injured fist.

Lock laughed, "Not too smart, are you?"

Bulldog attempted to unhook his restraints, but it was clear the hand he’d just smashed against the instruments wasn’t cooperating. He resorted to slamming his head back into the couch as hard as he could. It jarred the instrument panels between the two pilots and forced them to smash into Lock’s knees.

“Ow, you son of a!” Lock started, but was interrupted by another headbutt jarring the instrument panel into his knees. He attempted to lean forward to choke his pilot, but his restraints were also too tight to allow him to snake his arms through the gaps and reach Bulldog. He unstrapped himself and snaked his arm through a gap and slapped the pilot weakly.

“Do that again and you’ll lose that hand!” Bulldog growled.

“Then stop slamming your head back or I’ll fishhook you next time!”

“Truce?” Bulldog said, still huffing from his increased agitation as he again looked outside of the cockpit again.

“Truce,” Lock said as he relaxed back into his chair. “My kriffing luck,” he mumbled quietly to himself as he rubbed his smarting knees.

"I'm not space crazy," Bulldog added after a few minutes. Trying to explain himself, though struggling to find the words to do so. "It's just... Too many are gone... Sometimes," he sighed heavily and shook his head. "Sometimes I remember. Whatever. It doesn't matter."

Lock sat there, listening, hearing, surprisingly, himself in those words. He remained silent for a few seconds after Bulldog finished, "Yeah," he finally said. Somehow the chasm didn't seem as big. "I know the feeling."

********************************

Hyperspace near Skoth System
POV: Bulldog

Bulldog put his hand on the hyperspace lever in preparation of exiting hyperspace. The countdown clock started at 10 and began slowly crawling toward zero. “Exiting hyperspace in ten.”

“Stealth protocols ready to be engaged the moment we exit hyperspace,” Lock said aloud as he toggled some switches on his console. “You ready to do your job, trash can?” he asked in a raised voice to the uncharacteristically silent astromech. Both pilots were used to their astromechs having more personality and being very chatty, so this C1 unit being silent the entire trip was unsettling. However, neither had really noticed it as they had each other as company for the entire jump.

The clock reached zero, and Bulldog pulled back on the lever. The Y-Wing winked into existence in the middle of an asteroid field. He yanked the stick back and to the right to avoid a massive asteroid that was in their flight path. “What the shab!?”

“Watch that one on our right!” Lock shouted in surprise, his hand bracing against the window while his pilot threw the craft into an evasive maneuver.

Bulldog had seen the rock before Lock had pointed it out and was already rolling the Y-Wing to dive underneath the path of the new asteroid. He throttled down to give them all more time to get their bearings and figure out which way they needed to go. Rocks were colliding all around them, shooting off smaller projectiles in all directions.

“Watch out for that one!”

“Which one?!”

“Left side high, coming in fast!”

“Say that the first time then!”

“Another- twenty degrees high and right!”

“I saw that one. Stop being a back seat flyer!”

“I just want to stay alive, idiot!”

“Are our stealth protocols engaged, Captain?”

“Yes!” Lock shouted, covertly flipping a switch on his console. “Don’t tell me how to do my job!”

“Then don’t tell me how to fly,” Bulldog snapped, pitching their craft into a steep dive to avoid an asteroid he hadn’t seen coming. Both humans cursed at the sudden violent maneuver.

Throughout the tense moments, the silent astromech continued to give no sign that it was even active.

“Which way?” Bulldog asked, finally leveling out the Y-Wing into a leisurely path through a relatively clear area of the asteroid belt they had jumped into the middle of.

“I think our astromech is dead,” Lock said, typing a few commands into his console. “I’m not getting any response through the data line, and sensors don’t show any power sources outside of this cockpit and our engines.”

“The instruments are that sensitive to identify if our astromech is powered on?”

“Yeah, the sensor package on this baby is great. We should be able to see the power signature of any ships trying to hide in this area long before they’d catch us on visual scopes.”

“Ok, so two things,” Bulldog started,shaking his hands to release the tension that had built up after their frantic system entry. “One, why did we exit right in the middle of an asteroid field, and two, which way do we need to go?”

Lock punched a few more commands into his console. “Ok, we are headed in the right direction according to these sensors… I think. But I have no idea how or why we ended up where we did. My guess is the piece of junk astromech miscalculated before he completely shit the bed.”

“You think we’re going in the right direction?”

“Look man, I have no visual ID on the target or planet through this asteroid field. I’m picking up energy signatures in the direction we’re headed though.”

“Can’t you read those sensors better?”

“Sure, let me just enhance the picture,” Lock replied in a sarcastic tone. He loudly tapped a few keys on his console. “Enhance,” he said, tapping loudly again. “Enhance.”

“And?”

“Dude, I’m screwing with you,” Lock said with a playful sneer. “This doesn’t work this way as far as I can tell. The droid was supposed to do most of the heavy lifting while I identified areas we needed to get readings from.”

Bulldog snapped off a string of colorful curses. “This whole thing is farkled!”

“Calm down,” Lock replied. “Let’s keep going on this bearing and see what’s out there.”

Bulldog took a deep breath, feeling better afterward. “Can’t go back anyway, unless your astrogation skills are current,” he said in a fatalistic deadpan.

“Dank Ferrik!” Lock cursed. He’d forgotten about that part of the mission. “Guess I’ll plot one when the time comes,” he said nervously. “Been a while since I’ve plotted a course.”

“Better you than me,” Bulldog replied. He sharply inhaled as he jammed his foot down on the rudder and yanked the stick to put the Y-Wing into a sudden roll. “It’s about to get hairy again, hold on!”

Lock kept his head on a swivel to keep an eye out for any asteroids that might be sneaking up on them. Seeing nothing, he looked back at the sensor monitor. The planet was definitely dead ahead judging from the power signatures on his monitor. “Once we clear this asteroid field, we should be looking right at the planet and we can start our mission.”

“Anything ready to jump out at us?”

“Not that I can tel-WATCH THAT!” Lock shouted in surprise, pointing at yet another rogue asteroid.

Bulldog cursed as he avoided the new arrival. “Do you want to fly?!”

“YES!”

Bulldog paused, clearly not realizing that he’d asked his hypothetical question to another pilot. “Well, you can’t!”

“Then why did you ask?”

“Because I usually say that to non-pilots to shut them up out of habit!”

Lock didn’t respond to that comment. He thought he saw a close blip on the sensors, but when he examined it further, it didn’t come back. He scanned their surroundings visually again, and the planet of Skoth finally started to appear through the rubble they were flying through. He was taken aback by the lush greens and blues of the planet’s surface, and the white puffs of cloud cover scattered throughout the planet. It looked beautiful and untouched, much like the undeveloped parts of his home planet of Corellia. “Beautiful,” he said, transfixed.

Bulldog pulled over the last large asteroid in their path, skimming the surface to not give any indication they were there to any outposts or patrol forces. A warhead alert suddenly sounded in the cockpit, drawing his attention to the center console. “What the...?”

“Mine!” Lock shouted. “Drop countermeasures!”

“We don’t have any!” Bulldog shouted as he pushed the throttle forward and dove, putting the planet dead center of his flight path.

“Shake it!”

“Never happen in this tank!”

There was a muffled explosion, followed by the electric sizzle that accompanied the complete ionization of their electronics. Smoke began to fill the cockpit, and the Y-Wing started tumbling out of control. The entire cockpit was bathed in darkness, and the only sounds were the two men cursing and breathing rapidly as they were shocked multiple times.

“Ion mine,” Bulldog spat between shocks. “Nice.”

“Get our power back,” Lock said through a strained voice as he was pinned back to his seat by the sudden G-forces. “Inertial compensator is out!”

“Everything is out,” Bulldog huffed, similarly pinned back to his seat.

“Where are we headed?”

“I aimed the ship toward the planet before it got us.”

“Well that’s good.”

“Not going to be much help if we can’t control ourselves.”

As the Y-Wing hurtled end over end toward the planet, the two pilots were helpless. The Ion Mine had fried every active circuit in their ship when it struck, rendering everything inert that had once been active. None of the controls responded to the commands of the pilots, and no switches or buttons produced any results.

“You know, this is just the kind of thing I had planned for my shore leave anyways, ” Lock said sardonically.

“Crashing and burning? Interesting, me, too!”

“And what are we going to do to avoid that?”

Bulldog didn’t reply. Instead, the creaky old C1 astromech suddenly powered up with a low, almost grumpy series of beeps.

Lock craned his neck against the g-forces to look out of the back window of the cockpit. The head of the hold astromech was indeed swiveling back and forth, as if to get its bearings despite the wild multi-axial tumble of the craft.

“Is that garbage can active again?” Bulldog asked incredulously.

“Appears so,” Lock replied. “Hey Droid! Get our power back online!”

The C1 Astromech made a series of indignant tones and finished it off with a low negative blatt.

“That doesn’t sound positive,” Bulldog mused. The planet was very close to them now, almost filling the entire viewport during the times the Y-Wing was briefly facing the planet during their wild spin. “What did he say?”

Lock shrugged as best he could given their current circumstances. “No idea. I barely understand R series astromechs. This feels like an even older binary dialect.”

Suddenly, Bulldog’s monitor flared to life, but it was far from fixed. Lines of fried pixels cut across the display in criss-crossing patterns.

“We’ve got power coming back!” He shouted triumphantly.

No.

“No?” Bulldog asked.

“No what?”

“The droid just told me ‘no’ via the text interface.”

Main power bus is ionized beyond repair. All secondary bypass circuits are also too damaged for me to repair.

“The droid is alive?” Lock asked. “How is that possible?”

“How did you survive the ion mine?” Bulldog asked in case the astromech wasn’t responding to Lock.

Ionization energy only damages active circuits. I shut myself down right before reversion to realspace in the likely event that we ran into an Ion trap, which is what happened. Special modifications in my hardware also allowed for extra battery cells to be charged by such a trap, that in turn initiated my power up sequence.

“It says that he shut himself off to avoid the trap that got us,” Bulldog summarized.

Lock snorted. “That’s good for him, but what if him staying on had helped us discover the trap before we hit it.”

Bulldog grunted in agreement. He tried a few more switches in hopes of drawing more power to systems they needed to avoid the fiery death they were hurtling toward. Nothing else aside from his console was working

“What about the reserve power core? Battery power?”

This ship does not have those systems. Mission profile dictates the space is needed for more hi-res data storage.

“Well that’s just karking great!”

“What’s karking great? We getting the reserve back up soon?” Lock asked hopefully.

“Shut up! I’m trying to focus!”

“Keep me in the loop then, you moof milker!”

Bulldog grunted dismissively as he thought long and hard about their options. The outer reaches of the atmosphere started to interact with the hull. It would only be a matter of minutes before the friction would be too great for the hull to handle and the ship would burn up and break apart.

There is one option.

“It says we have one option.”

“Well? What is it?!”

“I’m waiting for him to tell us.”

I can provide enough power to the ejection control systems. I will eject, and find the nearest communication tower to report the failure of this mission.

“And what about us?”

I will report the failure of this mission AND the death of the agents involved.

“WHAT?!”

“What? What did he say?”

“Droid, transfer your power to Lock’s console, this one is too scrambled to read clearly!” Bulldog shouted, the seeds of an idea forming in his brain. The ship started to slow its axial role now that it had made contact with the outer reaches of the atmosphere, and he was now able to fight the reduced g-forces and twist around inside the cockpit with increasingly less effort.

“Droid, repeat your last message,” Lock said urgently, also aware of their increasingly dire situation.

I will report the failure of this mission AND the death of the agents involved.

“Uh, how are you going to do that?” Lock asked nervously. He saw his pilot moving around the cockpit, but was unsure what he was doing. “Wha-” He started, but was cut off by a sharp gesture from Bulldog.

“Keep getting him to clarify his intentions,” Bulldog said calmly, while he continued to dig through service panels. He knew that there were two devices in the cabin that currently had power: the console the droid was using to communicate with the two pilots, and the cockpit microphone that was picking up their voices and relaying them to the droid. He also knew that if he could find the right component panels, he could hack the wires to the pilot ejection system rather than the droid’s ejection system, but he needed more time to locate the tools without tripping any alarms the droid would recognize.

“Uh, Bulldog,” Lock broke in quietly. “This droid just told me he’s going to eject himself and leave us to die.”

“Are you kidding me?” Bulldog replied, acting distressed as if it was the first time he’d heard that plan of action. He hoped it was convincing. He thought he figured out the ejection seat ignition source, but he wanted to double check the surrounding wiring to be sure.

“Droid, are you sure it’s not possible to provide more power to emergency thrusters and repulsorlift? We can bring this ship down and keep all of us alive,” Lock pleaded.

43% probability of that being successful. 95% probability that my ejection will be successful.

“What are you going to do after you eject? Your wheels barely work. You land in that jungle you’ll end up rusting in some mud puddle!”

Recalculating… 86% probability of success.

“That only brought it down 9%?!” Lock shouted incredulously. “I think your logic calculation circuits are scrambled!”

“Convince him that saving the ship is the way to go!” Bulldog shouted, his arms elbow deep into two different access panels at this point. He needed to run a bypass, but in order to do that he was hunting for a length of wire that wasn’t too damaged from the ion mine that had fried everything else. He pulled a fistful of wires from the throttle panel and quickly rifled through them, discarding 15 of them immediately due to the very clear burn damage on the rubber casings. He held the last two in his hand and examined the exterior of each wire. Neither had any burn damage that he could see. He stripped the ends of both wires to expose them and make his splicing easier, and saw the metallic components were still pristine-looking, giving him hope. “Two is better than one,” he mused aloud.

“Two what’s are better than one?”

“What?”

Two organic heads are not better than one droid brain.

Lock smashed his fist against the cockpit window. The hull was beginning to heat up as they were now buffeted by the full atmosphere of the planet. He estimated they had about a minute left before the ship got too hot and started breaking up. “Your programming won’t allow you to knowingly kill two humans to preserve your own existence!”

Those directives have been removed by… classified… to ensure my ability to report on the results of the mission.

“That blasted Bothan schutta replaced the human life endangerment protocols!” Lock cursed, again smashing his fist against the cockpit window again.

“Of course he did,” Bulldog replied absentmindedly.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing!” Bulldog snapped, again giving the universal ‘kill’ gesture. “When is our friend leaving us?”

We will soon reach a safe altitude and speed where my ejection can commence. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry that it’s come down to this.

“Shove your sorries up your exhaust port!”

Astromechs do not have exhaust ports. I will eject in 23 standard seconds.

“He says he’s leaving in 23 seconds!”

Bulldog snapped another curse. He had one half of the wiring spliced, but he needed to strip the other wiring to make what he hoped was the required connection to subvert the droid’s ejection sequence and power their own. He used his multi-tool and stripped the wire quickly. “Stand by to manually pop the canopy!”

“WHAT?!”

Popping the canopy at this height will not preserve your lives. Jumping at this height and speed will still result in your deaths.

“Just do it!”

“What are you planning?!”

“Just do it ya stuck-up nerf herder!”

Lock gripped both handles to manually pop the cockpit and held on for dear life. “We need to work on our communication!”

Bulldog chuckled sharply, mentally counting down. He couldn’t complete the circuit too soon, or the droid would identify the hack job and find a new way to fire its own ejection sequence. “Ok…. ok… POP THE TOP!” He connected the wires and wrenched his eyes shut.

Goodbye.

Lock pulled the handles with all his might, and the cockpit wrenched open at the backside of the cockpit. The wind started with a whistle as the opening was small, and as it caught the lip of the cockpit, it tore it open faster with a roar. It buffeted the two pilots. He suddenly felt a massive thrust from below his seat as his ejection thruster fired. “MOTHERF--!”

***********************************

Skoth Upper Atmosphere
POV: Lock

Lock could've been on some beach somewhere, sipping some overly expensive fruity drink with an umbrella, but instead that kriffing bothan had him risking life and limb for some bullshab.

After the cockpit blew off, both Bulldog and Lock's seats fired off together, launching them straight up. Bulldog was quite unlucky, as his seat threw him directly into the previously ejected canopy. His helmet would save him from any lasting damage, but the blow was enough to knock the pilot unconscious. From ten feet above, Lock watched as Bulldog's seat's repulsor sputtered out, sending the ragdoll pilot plummeting downward. Luck turned for Bulldog and a mechanism in his chair realized how fast he was losing altitude and fired off a parachute.

At about that same time, the repulsor in Lock's own chair began to give out as well. "Kark me," Lock grunted as he began to plummet. Moments later, the failsafe that had saved Bulldog saved Lock as well, and a parachute burst from the back of his ejection seat, caught on the wind and began it's slow descent.

From this height he had a wonderful view of the jungle that awaited them; it's chaotic canopy looked like a tempestuous sea, Lock mused, as he watched it swallow the unconscious Bulldog. In the distance he could see the base at the edge of a large man made clearing, and from it paths were born, snaking through the jungle like currents, dragging them ever deeper into danger. The only port in this sea was that base, and it was full of enemies. Its gate opened and about a half dozen stormtroopers on speeder bikes poured out, the whine of their engines resembling predatory howls, sending chills down his spine. Such a wonderful kriffing view.

"We're so dead," he realized just as he reached the canopy. Trying to brace himself, Lock did his best to curl into a ball. He hit branches and snapped them, descending through the canopy until he burst through the otherside with a ray of light that heavily contrasted the darkness of the forest. The parachute caught onto the branches he's broken through and caught him less than four feet from impacting.

Hanging there, Lock stared at the ground below him. He'd been so close to dying. He was still close. All he had to do was sit tight, they'd find him, or Bulldog... That droyk. He wanted to blame the other pilot for this, somehow, but he knew he had as much fault as Lock himself did. It was on Shen'ryu, and they were going to die for it.

Though, perhaps, it was Lock's fault. How many had he led to their deaths? How many wingmen had Lock lost in the past few years? An uncomfortable amount. Nexu had died on Lock's watch. He was just a snot nosed brat, wasn't even old enough to understand what he'd die for.

Lock gritted his teeth and reached for the release on his straps and yanked on it as hard as he could. The four feet between himself and the ground was closed within an instant. He landed with a hard thud.

"Not again," he said with determination as he pulled himself up from the floor. His whole body ached from the drop. Lock's eyes looked towards the direction that Bulldog should have landed. "That way."

Because of how thick the canopy was, there was little in the way of vegetation on the floor of the forest, mostly moss, vines, and thick tree roots that intertwined, making traversal difficult. It took him a few moments to get into a rhythm, but soon enough Lock's training began to kick in. This wasn't even the worst environment he'd had to work in, he thought to himself as he hopped over another vine. He saw little in terms of fauna, though he'd seen plenty of rustling in the treetops as he ran past.

Wearing bright orange was good when you wanted the Search and Rescue vehicle to find you floating out in space, but here in the jungle, with no hope of rescue, it was only another thing that was trying to kill you. Lock always wore his brown leather jacket, so once he stripped off his EV gear and flight vest off his chest, he put the jacket back on over his jump suit and used some water to create mud that he smeared all over his legs. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than a pair of bright orange legs running through the trees. Lastly, he'd grabbed the survival pack hidden under the cushion of the ejection seat. Holstering his blaster, he began the trek towards Bulldog, hoping he'd make it in time.

It was a whole two hours before he finally heard the speeders. Lock was sweating and exhausted--this jungle was much harder to traverse than he'd given it credit for. Each time he tripped, or fell, or got caught he reminded himself: "Not again. Not again. Can't let another die. Not again. Keep going."

He didn't care whether he liked Bulldog or not at that point. He was a rude, intolerable droyk, and there wasn't a single person that would disagree... but he was a Renegade. He was their intolerable droyk. He was like family. As gross as it was to think about, he was a friend.

"Kark him," Lock said to himself breathlessly. "If the Imps don't kill him I will!"

Though he could hear the speeders, he knew they were far away, and seeing how difficult it was to traverse on foot, he knew that there was no way in Corellia's nine hells that a speeder was getting through. They were sticking to the roads they'd carved for themselves through the jungle, but neither Lock nor Bulldog had landed anywhere near these roads. With any luck, the stormtroopers would go to the crashed Y-Wing first, then look for the pilots. With their luck, Lock doubted it.

Finally, he saw it. A ray of light erupted right through the canopy. The parachute had caught onto the branches, leaving Bulldog hanging and attached to his ejection seat. Opposite to Lock, however, the other pilot had somehow become entangled on the lines of his 'chute.

At first, Lock assumed Bulldog would be awake because he saw his body moving but as the white haired pilot drew closer he was horrified to discover that it wasn't the case at all. Something with way too many legs had descended from the treetops; to Lock it looked like a large, hairy spider with an elongated tail wrapped around one of the thick branches above it. It was working on getting to Bulldog, pulling on the strings of the parachute with the tips of it's long spindly legs. It seemed to be actively avoiding the light.

"Kark," Lock grunted as he pulled at the blaster on his thigh and crouched down behind a root to come up with a plan.

Just as he did, a blaster bolt flew right over his head, through where his heart had been only a second ago. Wide eyed, Lock turned to look behind him. Six stormtroopers in their white armor were advancing towards him, crawling over, with much difficulty, the same vines and roots that had proved to be such a challenge for the pilot.

"Oh kark no," Lock shouted as he turned to fire at them. He let out a dozen or so blasts, forcing them to duck behind trees and roots, giving Lock a chance to toss himself over the root at his back and start making his way towards Bulldog and the giant bug that wanted to eat his wingmate. "This is some frizzit!"

The stormtroopers returned fire. The red bolts sizzled through the air, hitting trees and branches, filling the area with the smell of burned wood. This finally caused the beast to take notice, and when it finally did it was not pleased. It let out a screech and abandoned Bulldog, leaping from one branch to the other, using its legs and prehensile tail to cover the space between it and the humans with astonishing speed. The first human was Lock, who naively attempted to shoot at it. Though the first bolt missed, the second bolt singed the hairs on its thorax, causing the monster to screech again and it threw itself at Lock.

A decade as a fighter pilot had given Lock inhuman reflexes and he managed to throw himself out of the way just in time to not get smushed. The stormtroopers began firing at the monster who was now between them and their prey. Most, as usual, missed-but a few shots landed causing the monster to whip around again. When it did so it's prehensile tail slammed into Lock, who was just getting back up, sending him flying into a nearby tree trunk.

With the wind knocked out of him, Lock dropped to the floor and gasped for air. Finally, he could breathe again and used what strength he had in him to drag himself under one of the large, uplifted roots and watch as the spider monster pounced on one of the stormtroopers, catching it in it's surprisingly large and fanged mouth--it nearly swallowed the man whole, armour and all! One of the troopers, the squad leader by the mark on his shoulder, ordered the rest to fire but he was the beast’s next victim--it pierced the man's chest with one of his powerful legs and caught another by the waist with its tail and flung him into the air. He flew into the same trunk that Lock himself had hit, except this man had been unfortunate enough to go head first. There was no doubt about the result... Lock had heard the neck break.

A little more recovered, Lock looked towards Bulldog, who was still hanging there. Now Lock began to worry if Bulldog was dead... he should've regained consciousness by now...

Dragging himself out from under the root he was hiding under, he picked his blaster off the floor as he stumbled his way towards Bulldog. Behind him, he could hear screams as the beast savaged the stormtroopers, breaking them and devouring them with impunity. One of it's stalk eyed caught sight of Lock making his way towards its prey and it roared furiously, it's territorial instinct kicking in.

Cursing, Lock ran, knowing he only had a few seconds. He tripped and fell and began to roll, right into the potent beam of sunlight that Bulldog had created crashing through the canopy. The beast was right on top of him... until it wasn't. As Lock's dumb luck lead him into the light, the monster halted as soon as left left the shadow. Lock saw it for only a second--the light had caused the monster to immediately start cooking. It let out a scream and bounded off, grabbing one of the dead stormtroopers and escaping into the canopy, leaving Lock breathing hard as he stared after the fleeing beast.

"Kark you!" Lock yelled after it and collapsed in a fit of laughter, thinking about how lucky he'd just been. Up above him, Bulldog still hung from his 'chute, softly swinging as if in a hammock, silhouetted by the light beam they were both under. "And you, too."

Even though he knew that there were more stormtroopers coming, Lock laid there for a little bit before finally forcing himself up. He did not want to climb a tree but did so anyways and carefully cut Bulldog down, making sure to stay in the light. He was still hearing rustling in the leaves, which only caused Lock to start becoming paranoid. It took a quarter of an hour, but with persistence he finally got the larger pilot down without causing any more damage.

"You owe me," he was telling the unconscious man as he laid him down on the jungle floor and removed his helmet. "I could've been on a karking beach and here I am, dealing with your heavy shebs, hunted by stormtroopers, karking giant spider shadow monsters... Wake up, dammit!" The sound of a hefty slap caused some bat-like things to fly off, but not the desired effect of waking up the pilot. He had a pulse and he was warm to the touch, definitely alive... maybe the head injury was worse than it looked. Maybe Bulldog was in a coma.

Lock sat down and held his head in his hands, breathing heavily as he struggled to come to terms with the fact. If he was in a coma, then it was unlikely he'd ever come out of it. If he was in a coma, there was nothing Lock could do for him with the basic tools in his survival kit. If he was in a coma, then he was as good as dead, and if he didn't leave him here, then so was Lock.

"Another one," Lock said to himself.

Something inside of him was beginning to crack. He felt an imminent flood threatening to breach the well constructed wall. Another one. He's failed another one... What was wrong with him? Just as Lock was going to slip down an emotional drain Bulldog coughed. Lock was immediately at his side.

"W'n'm'eye... face'urts..." Bulldog mumbled, his eyes fluttering.

"Bulldog!" Lock grabbed the man's face and tried to make eye contact. There was a moment of recognition on Bulldog's face but then his eyes rolled back and he passed out again, this time snoring softly after letting loose a squeaky fart. Lock smiled, relief clearly on his face, even if there was no one there to see it. "You're still alive! You droyk! Now I have to carry you!"

Using what was left of the parachute, the ejection seat, and it's straps, Lock managed to build something he could drag Bulldog with, though with the terrain in question, it was going to be slow going.

Keeping an eye on the canopy, Lock began to drag Bulldog, unaware that another squad of stormtroopers was closing in on him...

***********************************

Skoth Jungle
POV: Battledog

Several hundred metres away, on a low rise, two figures observed the Imperials closing in on Lock and the unconscious Bulldog from their improvised hide constructed between two fallen trees. One was a wiry young human with dark hair and several weeks worth of thick black beard growth, his pale face smeared brown with dirt. The other was an older dark brown Abednedo with deeply set eyes and wispy white whiskers. The human tracked Lock through the scope of a compact slug thrower resting on a fallen log, its stubby barrel extended by a suppression device, whilst his companion observed through a pair of macro-binoculars.

“Looks like we have an arkanian dragging another pilot in a parachute,” the human said, “I see what looks like a standard Republic flight suit under his jacket.”

“An arkanian? Maybe he can splice your DNA with someone more optimistic,” Dru responded.

“I said an Arkanian, not a Sith alchemist. What's the current wind speed?” the human asked his companion, without taking his eye from the scope.

“Six-point-two knots.” The Abednedo replied. “You know,” he continued, “if you used a blaster you wouldn’t need to know the wind speed.”

“True, but you can’t silence a blaster, and this ‘thrower will keep running so long as I keep it oiled - especially in this damp.” He said all this whilst adjusting a dial on the weapon’s scope, his eye never once turning towards his partner. There was another, more sinister reason for bringing the older weapon along, and it had eight legs and a wicked tail. Seemed like his trusty slug thrower was the only weapon that managed to hurt those nasty nightmares. He had no idea what the Imperials used, but this was the only thing he and Dru had available that kept the massive spider monstrosities at bay. “Ah, looks like our friends are out of luck, those four Imperials have got them. Let’s see what we can do about that.”

He shifted slightly, drawing his right leg up a little to get a more comfortable firing angle, taking up the slack on the trigger he became very still, and began to take long slow breaths, not quite filling his lungs. In, out, in, out, on the second exhale he squeezed the trigger, only distantly registering the recoil, in, out, he squeezed again, in, out, he squeezed a third time and then took another half breath and exhaled slowly.

Had the troopers been even slightly further apart, three shots, so close together, would have been impossible but, unfortunately for them, they had just closed in to surround Lock and Bulldog. The first slug struck a trooper in the groin, tearing through muscle and severing the femoral artery. It impacted his hip bone where the small explosive charge detonated. He went down screaming, clutching his suddenly limp and useless leg as he tried to stem the bleeding. The second trooper took a slug through the side of the neck, it missed his spine but nicked his carotid artery, punctured his trachea and tore out his jugular vein as it exited, eventually embedding in a nearby tree. He went down with a wet gurgle, slumping face first into the mulch that made up the first floor. The third trooper was unlucky, had he turned slightly faster to help his fellows he might have lived. As it was, the slug entered through the gap under his armpit, but the tail nicked his backplate as it entered, causing it to tumble. The slug travelled down, made its merry way in a curved path down through his chest and abdomen before eventually gently coming to a stop against his spine and, upon reflection, decided not to explode. He simply keeled over sideways, dead from shock before he even hit the ground.

“Sloppy”, the human growled under his breath.

The abednedo scanned the surrounding jungle before reporting, “Clear. Looks like our arkanian finished off the last one.”

The two wriggled back from the hide on their bellies, collected the packs and got ready to move out. “Time to meet our new friends, I suppose,” the human said.

“Maybe you should let me make the introductions, you don’t make a great first impression,” the abednedo replied.

The human just grunted. “Let’s move.”

*************************************

Skoth Cave
POV: Bulldog

Bulldog was woozy. Nothing he saw made any sort of sense to his concussed brain. Lock was there in front of him, flashing a pen-light in both of his eyes and speaking, but all Bulldog got was incomprehensible echoes of words he couldn’t quite understand fully and a high-pitched ringing of a bell from some far off place. He attempted to clear the ringing in his ears, but focusing on it made other parts of his brain cry out in world-shattering agony. He groaned as his head lolled to the side. A brief, sharp pain radiated from his neck. Belatedly, he recoiled from the source. Moments later, the echoing and ringing had subsided.

“That stim looks like it’s working,” Lock said quietly. He patted the downed pilot on the shoulder. “Welcome back to the land of the living, ya kriffin’ ton of bricks.”

Bulldog attempted to rise, but became extremely nauseous and laid back down. “Where? What?”

“You smashed your dome on the canopy when we ejected,” Lock explained sympathetically. “Quick thinking with that hack job. I think that droid was cursing us in binary the entire way down.”

“So we’re not dead?”

“Not yet, anyway.”

Bulldog’s head cleared more, and his eyes began to focus on the stalactites of the cave they were currently in. “Any patrols come looking for us?”

“Yeah, but we got you under cover before they got to our landing site,” Lock said soothingly as he helped his pilot sit upright.

“We?”

“I’m ‘‘we’, friend,” another voice said from nearby.

Bulldog’s head whipped to the side to track the source of the new voice, and the movement was too much for his equilibrium. He immediately rolled to his hands and knees and vomited the remains of his last meal all over the cool stone floor. Small bits of ration bar and copious amounts of bile followed the natural fissures in the floor and pooled around a nearby stalagmite. After a few more dry convulsions, the feeling mercifully passed. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his flight suit and crawled away from the mess he’d just created. He fell heavily to his backside and gulped down deep breaths of air.

“Easy, here,” the new voice said, and the stranger offered him a bulb of water.

Bulldog grabbed it greedily and sucked down the cold fluid, reveling in the cool chill he felt as it traveled down his raw esophagus. He let out a contented sigh and crumpled the spent fluid bulb, tossing it deeper into the cave. “Thanks,” he huffed. “It’s not Jet Juice from Iggy, but it hit the spot.”

“You’re welcome. The name’s Sigurd,” he paused, “but my callsign is Battledog,” the man said as he held out his hand.

Bulldog shook it and raised an eyebrow. “Another pilot, huh? Where did you come from?”

“That’s a… long story,” Lock interjected, hoping to avoid going through that tale again. “He’s quite the sharpshooter as well. Saved our bacon back there.”

“You’re right, we have to catch that 0900 flight to Coruscant,” Bulldog said sarcastically, wincing. “No time at all to hear a long story.”

Lock rolled his eyes and shrugged. He looked over to BattleDog.

“Classified, the less you know the better,” the pilot said, it sounded like a practiced response, the tone of his voice said that this wasn’t the first time he’d had to say those exact words.. “Suffice to say, a certain arrogant physicist is going to get a new and improved SLAM, from my boot, when I get off this rock. We crash landed on this a few weeks ago. I brought us down safe, but we had to torch the ship. There were originally five of us. Imps got one, spiders got the other two.”

“Spiders?” Bulldog’s eyes grew large. “Kronging spiders?”

“Yeah, big ones,” Lock said. “I had to stop one from eating you.”

“They look a little bit more like centipedes with gigantic legs to me,” BattleDog added. “They have huge fanged mouths and can swallow a man whole.”

Bulldog looked pale and visibly gulped. “Wait? Almost ate me?”

“Yeah, man, it was gross,” Zimm interjected, though he was spoken over.

“Oh definitely, I actually saw the one that wanted to grab Bulldog swallow a whole stormtrooper,” Lock continued. “It smacked me pretty hard with that prehensile tail it has. They’re hairy and smell horrible.”

“They’re hyper sensitive to the light so they rarely leave the forest, we’re safe here,” BattleDog explained. “A simple fire is enough to keep them away. The Imps use flood lights at the base.”

Bulldog’s equilibrium returned, and he took one hand each from Lock and Battledog and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. After a moment of vertigo threatened to take him back to the bedrock, Lock used his shoulder to steady the concussed pilot. Grunting in thanks, he took another deep breath and composed himself. “So, what’s the plan now? I imagine you are as karked as we are on this freakingly well fortified monster spider planet.”

Battledog winced and shook his head from side to side. “We are stranded here, true, the same as you.”

“There’s another person here?”

“Me, obviously,” Zimm’s voice called out cheerfully from somewhere out of sight. Nobody else reacted to the ghost’s comment.

“My co-pilot Dru is keeping watch at the mouth of the cave. He’s the ugly Abednedo with the long face and bushy chops,” BattleDog was trying to be playful with his wingmate.

“I heard that,” a gravelly voice called quietly from farther away.

Bulldog pursed his lips and scrunched his face in deep thought. “Ok, so we’re stranded. What’s the good news here?”

“At least that droid’s scrap,” Lock smirked.

*************************************

Skoth Jungle Overlooking the Imperial Base
POV: Lock

“If that’s a TIE Factory, then my balls are made of kyber crystals,” Bulldog announced, causing both Lock and Dru to snort in amusement.

“Is he always this… charming?” BattleDog asked.

Lock gave him a lazy shrug, “Mostly, yeah.” His attention was on the binoculars he was looking through. He tapped the button a few times, zooming into various locations around the base. “But he’s right, no chance that’s a TIE Factory.”

“Well, that’s what I said,” BattleDog answered.

“Okay, you’re both right.”

“I said so, too,” Dru, the Abednedo, added.

Lock rolled his eyes,” Fine, everyone is right. Happy?”

There was a pause. Then BattleDog began, “But I was firs--” he was cut off by Dru’s elbow loving bruising his ribs. “Ahg… ugh… Kark it, Dru… So, what’s the plan, Captain?”

Lock was silent. The base itself was mostly wide open--apart from two large blast doors, most of the base was made up of cheap buildings that seemed to have begun their life as storage containers. Lock could see one TIE Reaper and about twenty-four TIE Fighters all neatly lined up to one side of the compound, while on the other rested various repulsorlifts, and two smaller AT-STs, a jungle variant that Lock had seen a couple of times, with an open canopy. He couldn’t help but smirk when he noticed the moss that had grown on them. That meant that they hadn’t used the walkers in some time, probably because of those disgusting giant monkey spiders that lived in the canopies. On the same note, enormous flood lights surrounded the base, and when on they probably illuminated the entire area, keeping the giant spider things at bay. They were the first obstacle they would have to overcome.

“Are you sure that they were building an ion cannon?” Lock asked, bringing up his binoculars again and examining the large blast doors, looking for any clue or proof of what they were saying. It wasn’t that he didn't believe them, but it didn’t hurt to have proof.

“Positive. They only just finished fitting the blast doors yesterday. Until then, you could see the cannon from this ridge,” BattleDog explained.

Lock sighed, “Right, that cannon is a big deal. If we want to escape, we’re going to have to deal with it… and those TIEs… and all those bucketheads… and whatever’s in orbit… and those mines…”

“Sounds like a party,” Bulldog replied, taking the binoculars from Lock when the Rogue offered them to him. “Maybe set some charges on the cannon? Or on the TIEs.”

“We don’t have enough charges for both,” Lock mused thoughtfully. “Someone is going to have to do something about those flood lights, too.”

“Not it,” BattleDog said.

“Let’s head back. I have a few ideas percolating, but we’ll need a plan,” Lock said and then motioned the rest to follow him off the ridge and together they headed back to their hideout.

*************************************

Skoth Cave
POV: Bulldog

Bulldog was still woozy, but the worst of his concussion symptoms had subsided with the aid of more hypostims from his survival kit. The four men huddled around a lit datapad deep inside the cave to mask their voices and lifesigns. It made for difficult viewing, but it was better than nothing.

“I’d kill for a hot chocolate,” Lock said.

“I’m afraid it’s all gone, already,” BattleDog replied, “Besides,” he grimaced, “those spiders seem to pick up on it on your breath, or something.”

“So, we have four objectives,” Lock said as he swiped images across the screen. “Number one, figure out what is behind that big ass door and spike the ion cannon somehow. Two, download the data from the base’s computers. Three, disable the TIE fighters on the ground to prevent launch. Lastly, we need a ride out of here.”

“I saw at least one TIE Reaper down there, it can carry all of us out of here,” Battledog said confidently.

“Can you fly one of those?” Dru asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Battledog replied, “The great thing about Imperial ships is everything’s standard, and in Basic.”

“Can’t be much different than a U-Wing,” Lock agreed. He paused briefly as a dark emotion crossed his face.

“What?”

“If I’m being honest here, I think this mission is a bust and we should just focus on objective number four.”

“I have no objection to that,” Dru agreed eagerly. “Our mission is done.”

Bulldog shook his head. “Ours isn’t.”

“We’re stranded and we’ve lost two ships,” Lock replied. “I don’t think we should risk losing any more than that.”

“We were told to identify if there were slaves and TIE factories,” Bulldog said adamantly. “We haven’t confirmed either.”

Lock snorted as he looked at Battledog and Dru. “Did either of you see any TIE factories? I didn’t. It stands to reason that there aren’t any slaves either.”

“We don’t know what’s behind those blast doors.”

“An arseload of Imperial troopers is what’s behind those blast doors,” Battledog muttered with a bitter laugh.

Bulldog nodded, but his jaw was set. “Maybe. But until we confirm if there are slaves or not, we can’t leave. If the Fleet decides to strike here thinking there are slaves, people are going to die for no reason. Maybe our friends might die.”

For a while, nobody said anything. Dru kicked a rock. The bouncing and tumbling of stone against rock echoing off the walls was the only thing anybody heard. Eventually, it came to a stop, and seconds later the echo died off as well. Zimm appeared behind Battledog, strangely well lit despite the dark conditions. He nodded in approval, while Battledog’s face was screwed up deep in thought. Lock watched Bulldog.

“Look,” Bulldog started earnestly. “Last week we lost a lot of friends. I locked up in the middle of that furball and put our friends in danger. I fell asleep at the end of the battle because I was so mentally fatigued. I don’t think I could bear the thought of more of our friends possibly dying because I cut corners,” he finished as he looked pleadingly into Lock’s eyes.

“Kark it all,” Lock sighed in resignation.

“So now,” Bulldog started, knowing he’d won the argument. “Let’s come up with an actual plan that involves accomplishing all four objectives.” He looked up to Lock, who still had a conflicting range of emotions running across his face. “Though, I think the Captain here has more experience in this arena than I do…”

*************************************